Wildlife experts talk to legislators about sick deer

March 4, 2002 Wisconsin State Journal by Susan Lampert Smith and Ron Seely
The state is starting aerial surveys and will hire sharpshooters to determine how many western Dane County deer are infected with chronic wasting disease.

State wildlife experts told worried legislators Tuesday that little is known about the spread of the brain disease, a relative of mad cow disease that hasn't been seen before in wild deer outside a 15,000-square-mile area on the border of northeastern Colorado, southern Wyoming and the panhandle of Nebraska.

Lab results returned late last week showed the disease was present in at least three deer shot in November in the town of Vermont -- the first time it's shown up in Wisconsin.

Tom Schulenburg, a town of Vermont farmer whose son shot one of the infected deer, said the 12-point buck looked sickly. The family didn't eat the meat and turned the deer carcass over to the state Department of Natural Resources at the testing station. "It was just a bag of bones, really anorexic-looking," Schulenburg said, adding that he has seen one other sickly looking deer in the area. The DNR is asking that area people report sick deer.

Sarah Shapiro-Hurley, deputy administrator of the DNR's land division, told the Senate Committee on Environmental Resources Tuesday that the state is hiring sharpshooters to kill more deer for sampling, interviewing landowners and conducting helicopter surveys. The state may also give landowners permission to shoot deer that appear sick, she added.

"We really believe that before we can make long-term plans to handle this," Shapiro-Hurley said, "we have to understand the magnitude of the problem. We know so little about the disease. We don't know how it spreads."

The senators want a report in 30 days on how Wisconsin will deal with its first outbreak, said state Sen. Jim Baumgart, D-Sheboygan, who chairs the committee.

"We want your work to be faster rather than slower," Baumgart said, adding the consequences of the disease spreading to deer and possibly domestic livestock are "just unthinkable." He said he may ask the governor for more money to fight the disease.

Last November, state researchers sampled the brain stems of 435 deer shot on opening day of the 2001 gun hunting season at six locations around the state; of 82 samples sent from the Mount Horeb registration station, three tested positive for the disease. None of the other five locations had positive samples.

Chronic wasting disease is part of a family of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, which are believed to spread by small proteins called prions.

There is no evidence that CWD can spread to humans who eat meat from infected deer, said state epidemiologist James Kazmierczak [There is evidence that CWD prions can infect human brain tissue--BSE coordinator]. However, in Europe, about 100 people apparently contracted the fatal human version of the disease by eating beef infected with mad cow disease.

"We know that ... mad cow disease has crossed the species barrier and caused disease in humans," Kazmierczak said. "So if you're asking if it's impossible (for the deer disease to affect humans) we have to say we don't know."

No one knows why the disease has shown up first in western Dane County, said Kerry Beheler, a wildlife health specialist who ran the sampling program in Mount Horeb. But once the disease arrived, the area's bountiful deer herd can help it spread more easily.

"One general rule is the more animals in an area, the more likely a disease will spread -- it's just like kids (spreading illness) in kindergarten," she said.

Rep. DuWayne Johnsrud, R-Eastman, and head of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee, speculated that the strength of the Quality Deer Management program in the area played a role. Quality Deer Management, a voluntary landowner and hunter program, stresses that hunters should let small bucks go so they grow older and develop larger antlers.

"To get the bigger horns, you have to feed them supplements," said Johnsrud, a longtime opponent of deer feeding and baiting. He speculated that supplements made of bone meal could spread disease, as could gathering deer at feed stations.

But Pat Sutter, a town of Vermont resident and Quality Deer Management advocate, said it could be that the disease -- which takes at least a year and a half to show up in deer -- is being detected in the area precisely because its bucks are older.

"It may be because of Quality Deer Management that they found it," said Sutter, who said neighbors are very concerned both about the disease and the steps the DNR may take to control it.

"It just breaks my heart that we've worked for 15 years to improve the herd," Sutter said. "What really shocks me is that it fell right in the middle of a very healthy herd."

DNR district spokesman Greg Matthews said the DNR is planning an information session in the area in coming weeks.

"We believe more deer in that area might be infected with CWD," Matthews said. "In all likelihood, there are more."

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